This past season, it felt like so much changed for the Twins. Joe Mauer finally developed a power stroke and played beyond our most optimistic expectations. Denard Span solidified himself in the leadoff spot, showing that he may in fact be the best leadoff hitter the Twins have had since Chuck Knoblauch. Along with Span’s proficiency at getting on base, the offense featured four legitimate power threats in Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel. They also, for a time, had a legitimate third baseman in Joe Crede, who brought both power and stellar defense to the hot corner. As if the power-increase on offense weren’t odd enough, the Twins suddenly found themselves with serious pitching problems, with Scott Baker struggling early, Nick Blackburn struggling in mid-season, Kevin Slowey getting injured, and Glen Perkins featuring a lethal mix of injury and mediocrity. Francisco Liriano, of course, was victimized by a combination of maddening bad luck and strike zone control.
Despite these changes, the Twins enter this offseason with similar needs as in the past. First, they lack a true number one starter. While it’s either ridiculous or naïve to expect the Twins to make a big splash like signing John Lackey, re-signing Carl Pavano could go a long way toward stabilizing the rotation. With a pitcher like Pavano on board, lacking a true number one starter is offset by having a full rotation of solid starters, with Pavano, Baker, Blackburn, Slowey and maybe Brian Duensing giving the Twins a solid, if not flashy, rotation. Second, the Twins have glaring needs at all infield positions not occupied by Morneau. Essentially, the Twins need a starter and two players to fill either second, third or short. With a Pavano re-signing likely costing the Twins $6-8 million per year, and the Mauer extension likely to add $8-10 million to the payroll next year, the Twins are probably going to have to address these positions via trade. With that in mind, I’d like evaluate which player for the Twins is their most beneficial trade asset. To be beneficial, the player needs to be both expendable and capable of fetching a large return. The answer is pretty clear. The Twins’ most beneficial trade asset is Jason Kubel.
(I didn’t even want to write this post, but as the provider of your Twins Fix, I realize it’s my duty to announce my endorsement of shopping a player I’ve been backing relentlessly for years. Seriously, I love Jason Kubel. I love that he mashes. I love that all he seems to do is hit huge home runs. I love that he gives the Twins a left-handed murderers’ row behind Mauer and Morneau. I love the beard. Seriously, it’s not quite a bromance, but it’s close. Kube, I love you man. I’m sorry. Really, I’m sorry.)
The first reason Kubel is a beneficial trade asset is that he is expendable. When Morneau went down in September, Cuddyer filled in admirably at first base. Cuddyer is going to give you offensive production either in right field or at first base, but I would argue that he is less of a defensive liability at first base, AND less of a defensive liability than Morneau. For his career in right, Cuddyer posts a -8.9 Ultimate Zone Rating; at first, his UZR is -1.3. Morneau, for his part, sports a 3.2 UZR, but that is probably inflated a bit by his anomalous 15.0 score in 2005. Further, Cuddyer’s career UZR at first is slightly unreliable given that he’s never played a full season there, and his career score is based only on 80 games. I’m going more off what I saw from Cuddyer at the end of the year in saying that he might be a better defensive option at first than Morneau (and I’m fully aware that my own observations are limited). Either way, Cuddyer’s ability to play first as well as he does allows the Twins to move Cuddyer to first and DH Morneau, or alternate the two of them at first and DH. Even though I’m not a huge Delmon Young believer, it would be interesting to see what Young could do given a full season in the outfield. The outfield alignment would then be Span, Young, and Carlos Gomez, with Cuddyer and Morneau sharing duties at first and DH. While losing Kubel would hurt, it might not be disastrous. Further, it would give the Twins an opportunity to give Morneau more time at DH, cutting down on his wear and tear.
This brings us to the second reason Kubel is the most tradeable trade asset – he could bring in a huge return. Kubel is locked up through 2010 with a club option for 2011; his 143 OPS+ bat could be available for two years at less than $10 million. Couple that with the fact that FanGraphs estimates his value for the past season alone to have been $13.4 million, and Kubel’s production can be had especially cheaply. That should allow the Twins to trade him for major-league ready talent.
Of course, my first preference would be for the Twins to address their pitching and infield needs while still retaining Kubel. The Twins have invested a ton of time into Kubel’s development and are now finally being rewarded for their patience. Kubel is a power bat at DH who has made fans forget the days that Jason Tyner was the best option at DH. Furthermore, the Twins could solve their outfield/DH logjam by simply cutting ties with either Young or Gomez. But again, the point here is to determine which player the Twins can most afford to part with AND can bring them the most in return. While losing Kubel’s cheap production would hurt, he might bring the most improvement while being decently replaceable. Going forward, it seems to me that Jason Kubel needs to be considered in any trade possibilities. This isn’t to say, “TRADE KUBEL!!!” Trading any player requires weighing that player’s value against the value received in return. This is only to say that trading Kubel might be the Twins’ best opportunity at improving via trade.
(Note: In these posts, I try to explain advanced stats and my use of them wherever possible. At the same time, explaining these stats can be boring for people who don’t care and redundant for people familiar with them. If you have any questions about my use of stats like Win Probability, UZR, OPS+, or just about advanced statistics in general, feel free to ask me. I’m always happy to explain/discuss.)